Bending without breaking: What new research is saying about effective religious parenting strategies

Want your adolescents to be honest and open about important issues in their lives? What about having your children and grandchildren continue in the faith?

It will not be easy, according to several studies on religion and family life in the latest issue of the journal Religions.

But making difficult decisions – on issues ranging from fathers being open to parental leave to parents embracing family faith activities – may enrich your child’s life in multiple ways into young adulthood and beyond.

First, it helps to choose a parenting style somewhere between the clueless Homer Simpson and those psychotic, control-freak new stepparents who are the staples of many horror films.

As in many parenting dilemmas, researchers in one study indicated parents may succeed best with the right mix of warmth and oversight: They neither downplay the significance of religious beliefs or worship attendance, nor rigidly interpret rules in ways that would alienate their children and contradict images of a divinity who loves and cares for them.

“Religious firmness integrated with religious flexibility is more likely to result in a balanced, healthy style of religious parenting,” concluded scholars analyzing more than 8,000 pages of in-depth interviews with 198 Christian, Jewish and Muslim couples from 17 states.

A great deal of research has shown parents’ faith can have a positive impact on their children in areas from mental health to developing healthy relationships to being less likely to smoke, take illegal drugs or abuse alcohol.

Some examples from the new research include:

Secrets and lies: Researchers analyzing data from the second wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion found that adolescents who attend religious services more often are less likely to keep secrets from parents. Further, youth who believe that religion is important are both less likely to lie to parents and keep secrets from parents. Key reasons: More religious adolescents were less likely to use alcohol, to have peers who use drugs or drink heavily and to have lower standards of morality – all factors in the likelihood of lying and keeping secrets.

Sex, faith and college students: A study of undergrads at a large public university in the mid-Atlantic suggested that students from families that were likely to pray and talk about their faith together were less likely to have had sex. Greater parental oversight was associated with a decreased likelihood of ever having unprotected sex. And students who were more religious had a lower likelihood of engaging in any sexual activity, and a higher likelihood of condom use when they did.

Daddy’s home: A study analyzing data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study found evidence suggesting that taking paternity leave, and longer periods of leave, is linked to more frequent father involvement and lower parental conflict among fathers who attend religious services frequently. Fathers who take leave and attend religious services weekly engage with their child about one-half day per week more frequently than fathers who do not take leave.

But not all the outcomes are positive.

For example, a separate study recently published online in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found fathers with a strong public and private faith were likely to be more involved with their children. “Highly religious fathers were warmer, showed higher levels of responsibility, were more engaged, and used positive discipline more frequently than less religious fathers regardless of child age,” researchers reported. However, fathers who were highly religious and held to traditional masculine norms were more likely to engage in harsh punishment.

That religious parents have a major influence on the faith and lives of their children is becoming almost overwhelmingly clear, some scholars say.

When it comes to the transmission of faith across generations, the connection is “nearly deterministic,” according to University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the National Study of Youth and Religion.

The fourth wave of the study found just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.

In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults.

The study of parents balancing religious firmness and religious flexibility found exemplars from all traditions.

One East Indian, Muslim father, said, “I do primarily look to the religion; however, I look into the secular things to the extent that if it’s going to help me understand the situation we are up against.”

Raising children who can reap the benefits of a healthy faith and avoid the pitfalls that can produce negative outcomes is not a perfect science.

But the research suggests it is not one parents can outsource to anyone else.

Image by Tiago Cassol Schvarstzhaupt, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Michael Coghlan, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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